Monday, March 22, 2010

Carbon Paranoia!

I come from a country (India) where the notions of energy and water conservation are not abstract but very much problems we face here and now. The scarcity of resources is evident, was always so. I was brought up in a family that was conscious of these topics much before the world was caught by the current marketing blitz, and we were quietly introduced to the notions of conservation many decades ago. After all, there was only little water that we would be supplied each day. Earth hour is something each one of my countrymen faces each day twice over in the least, when either the scheduled or otherwise load shedding takes place.

My working with a start-up focusing on energy markets couple of years ago was accidental. It was accidental because more that the related climate change concerns, the business case looked great for energy conservation, especially for industries and commerical buildings. It was difficult to engage the customers with CO2e they were contributing to the earth's atmosphere. But it was easy to engage with them by presenting a case where they could save money by reducing the cost of energy. One can only reduce this cost through conservation and hence conservation was a good concept for Indian industry. All the same, consequently my interest in climate change topics was also accidental. I had occsasionally been watching a few TV documentaries or films (Inconvenient truth for example) on the topic. But the purposeful excursions into field of climate change only began around UN COP15 at Copenhagen. The diversity of opinions and degree of earnestness brought to the fore to make the explorations exciting. Around the same time the climategate and glaciergate happened and I began reading the IPCC v4 report.

I then set out to find answers for the following in that order.

  1. Why is there a debate on benefits on conservation of natural resources?
  2. Or was the debate about feasibility of anthropogenic (i.e. man-made) global warming?
  3. Is the science of climate change so complicated that IPCC got it wrong?
  4. With or without IPCC errors, what does the whole thing mean to the world at large?
  5. Does the physics of climate change help understand?
As it turned out, I realised that there was hardly any debate on coservation of natural resources. That is given. Yes there was an issue (and still is) about whether anthropogenic global warming is real. Climategate and glaciergate brought out the focus on CO2 emissions as the sole reason why the planet was warming and doomsday hypotheses were presented. As to the science of climate change, there does not seem much of a problem with science per se, as scientists are doing a good job but largely their work does not reach the common man in the language the world understands. It is also known that the climate change science is not straightforward. But if left to the scientists, am sure a constructive univerally acceptable theory can be brought out. Unfortunately, IPCC was assumed to be the medium that brings out that theory to the common man. And that probably was the reason why IPCC got it a bit mixed up. The problem, then, is not plain science, but what may be called the herd science. Herd science is when (convenient) facts from science are used by many related disciplines of economics, mathematics, politics and even religion are used to back up a certain (convenient) truth. Today, much of carbon related paranoia can be explained by herd science.
I thought I was less of a common man and more scientifically inclined, so I thought of following the trail of physics. Physics remains as pure a medium of science that explains what is possible and what is not (till proven otherwise) and hence has a universal appeal. What is quite clear to one and all is the role of green house gases (GHG) in global warming. This is something known to mankind for over 2 centuries now (at least). What is not so clear is the degree of that role and whether it has a positive or a negative impact. In this context, I would like to present two very interesting views that caught my attenion on role of CO2 in global warming.

View 1: In the absence of any GHGs, Stefan-Boltzmann law shows that the average surface temperate on earth would be -18 degrees C. This is well below freezing point and obviously not good for life. We also know that in the presence of GHGs, the Stefan-Boltzmann law shows the average surface temperate of earth to be around 15 degrees C. So the presence of GHGs raises the surface temperature by 33 degrees C. This is a positive and desirable impact for life on earth. GHG composition shows that it is largely made of water vapors (almost 60-70 percent) and gases such as CO2, methane and others.

In last 200 years or so, CO2 levels have risen from preindustrial levels of 280 ppm to 380 and global temperatures have gone up by 0.8 to 1.0 degress C. If CO2 levels were to reach twice the level of preindustrial age to 560 ppm, that would raise global temperatures further by 0.2 to 0.5 degrees C. So where did IPCC get the number as 2-6 degrees C from?

View 2: Since preindutrial age, CO2 may have gone up by over 30%, but CH4 (methane) has gone up by a whopping 300% in the same time period. In CO2 terms, it is a staggering 7500% increase as CH4 is 25 times more reflective than CO2. Amdahl's law shows that even if the CO2 levels were to be reduced to 50% (not a great idea in the first place), we may only have a 2% improvement!

What do these 2 views show? That, even if CO2 increases 2 folds, temperatures are not going to go up. On the other hand, even if we reduce CO2 2 folds, expected improvement is meagre. So why focus on CO2 at all?

If then, the focus is to be on water vapours (and there is evidence of recognition of this fact by NASA and others as late as a month ago), then anthropogenic global warming is a myth. There would be global warming alright, but as was always the case due to the earth cycle. Humans would hardly have much control over the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere (mostly it is due to seas and oceans).

So in summary, here are my takeaways:
  1. Anthropogenic global warming is a myth. Long live planet Earth !
  2. Focus on climate change and CO2+e needs to be investigated further and would be foolish to focus on conservation plans focusing on CO2 alone. Awaiting IPCC v5 report !
  3. Conservation of natural resources must be done irrespective of CO2. In developing countries like India, conservation has a financial benefit rather than an environmental one which is more appealing to the customer.
  4. Linking energy conservation to CO2 emissions may be a good academic exercise but while setting targets based solely on CO2 levels, one should be careful.
  5. Green technologies should be deployed, green oriented processes must be in place, not because they make great political statement, but because they are good.

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